NOTE: This is an updated version of the story, published in our recent Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
- Gathering: Collect acorns in autumn from under any species of oak, discarding those that are very discoloured, squishy, lightweight, or with holes.
- Drying: Spread your acorns out to dry in a single layer, in a well-ventilated place out of direct sun. I use stackable plastic baskets, lined with newspaper. The acorns can be left there until you’re ready to process them.
- Planting: When you help yourself to acorns, you should also help the tree to reproduce. As you spread the acorns to dry, select the very biggest and best to plant immediately (acorns germinate quickly and don’t keep well), in spots where they’ll be protected from grazers and grass-cutters, e.g. among thorny bushes.
- Shelling: After a few days of drying, you can easily remove the shells with your fingers, or with a nutcracker or penknife.
- Grinding: Put the shelled acorns, a couple of handfuls at a time, into a blender with water and grind them to a coarse meal.
- Leaching: Pour the meal into a cloth bag and place this in a saucepan or bowl. Fill the bag and pan with water and leave to soak, removing the bitter tannins. Change the water about five times over a 24-hour period.
- Baking: Now your acorn meal is ready to use immediately, store in the freezer, or dry in the oven (read on to the end for two home-grown acorn bread recipes).
I’m working my way gradually uphill, gathering acorns as I go. It’s a golden October afternoon, sunny with a light breeze and very quiet: I can hear the gentle chirping of crickets, and in the far distance the barking of a village dog. The land, here in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, is steep and undulating, with many little sunken dells and outcrops of limestone. It’s grassy parkland with thousands of young walnut trees, alongside a range of other species including some mature sessile oaks, Quercus robur – 80 to 150 years old, I estimate from their girth – under which the ground is fairly carpeted with acorns: sleek, fat, glossy. They look good enough to eat, but instead I pop them in my bag, four or five to a handful. Every acorn is a tiny piece of good news, a micro-hit of pleasure. I’m feeding my family, storing up for the winter. Though this land isn’t mine, the owners live in Madrid and hardly ever come to the village. I don’t think they’d mind my gathering their acorns, anyway, as nobody uses them for food, or anything else.
So I wander on until I get to my favourite sitting spot: a horseshoe of karst, ringed with oaks to form a sort of outdoor living room with a ceiling and floor of leaves, green and brown. It’s a place that feels welcoming and generous, like there’s a benign intelligence here, even though I may not be able to communicate with it. Coming here is like coming to a friend’s house, one who appreciates the companionship of shared silence.
By now my bag’s full, so I fold over the top, place it on a flat rock as a cushion, and sit down to write.
For many thousands of years, wherever oaks grew, acorns (‘oak-corns’) were a staple food for people. ‘It may be possible that the human race has eaten more of acorns than it has of wheat … Those humans (and possibly pre-humans) who dwelt in or near the oak forests in the middle latitudes—Japan, China, Himalaya Mountains, West Asia, Europe, North America—have probably lived in part on acorns… possibly for thousands of centuries.’2
In Greek myth, the first man was Pelasgus, ancestor of the Pelasgians; he ‘sprang from the soil of Arcadia, followed by certain others, whom he taught to make huts and eat acorns – a diet that persisted into classical times, when an oracle forbade the Lacedaemonians to touch the land of the Arcadians with the words: “In Arcadia are many men who eat acorns, who will prevent you”’.’3 Arcadia later entered the Western imagination as a time or place of abundance and liberty, not corrupted by civilisation.
Anyone who’s read an Asterix book knows that the Celts venerated the oak, but who knows that it also gave them their daily bread, and large quantities of acorns have been found hoarded in most Celtic hill-forts?
At the time of Columbus, what is now California was home to perhaps one-third of the population of North America, essentially living as hunter-gatherers with acorns as their staple food, stored in characteristic granaries loosely woven from branches for air circulation, that could be seen on the outskirts of villages.4
If you live near oak trees anywhere in the world, acorns are part of your culinary heritage. Acorn bread is your birthright, but it’s one you’ve probably never tasted. At some point, the idea of eating acorns dropped out of Western culture like a millstone. Acorns may be unique in this regard, as a staple food in vast areas of the world that’s been almost entirely forgotten. Which raises the questions: why and how did we forget about eating acorns, and what might we have to gain by remembering again?
There’s more physical hunger in 2022, in materially wealthy countries, than there has been for generations. We talk of eating insects, indoor agriculture, and growing meat in vats, yet vast amounts of wild foods, and land where they could be grown, are ignored. Still, it would be naïve to say to hungry people in the West, ‘Go and forage for wild food.’ (‘Let them eat acorn bread!’) The commons were enclosed generations ago, the culture of self-sufficiency has been eroded too. People living in poverty have little access to nature and no time for gathering and processing food.
But there’s also a deeper epidemic of soul hunger, manifested as loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction, cult-like behaviour, and extreme ideologies, including the dominant one. We’re told our economy must grow endlessly in order to survive; citizens are redefined as consumers, mere conduits for goods and services. We’re told we need a high-speed railway to get from A to B 20 minutes quicker, never mind the 300-year-old oaks that are in the way. What are these but symptoms of the most desperate, all-consuming famine of the soul?
Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.5 Even if acorn bread, at present, can’t help much with the ‘how’, the hunger of the body, I think it is a powerful medicine for the ‘why’, the hunger of the soul. There’s no better cure for what ails us than seeking out the company of trees, forming a relationship of mutual aid with them, taking them into ourselves as nourishment. And perhaps, if we dig into the reasons why acorns were forgotten as food, we might also be able to dig up the roots of the soul famine that besets us as a culture.
In that blessed [Golden] Age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit…
– Cervantes, Don Quixote
Acorns were good until bread was found.
– Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum (The Advancement of Learning)
Cervantes’ classic comedy Don Quixote and Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, both first published in 1605, represent opposite poles of thought whose influence continues to this day.
Bacon was a progenitor of the modern paradigm of Progress: the inevitable ascent of mankind from primitive to civilised, rags to riches, superstition to science. Cervantes, by contrast, is profoundly sceptical of Progress. His protagonist Don Quixote upholds the values of a bygone age to the point of madness, and suffers greatly for his folly; yet he retains the reader’s sympathy far more than his rational neighbours, even when ultimately defeated (at the third attempt!) by the forces of Rationality, in the shape of the university graduate Samson Carrasco.
Don Quixote’s speech about the Golden Age is delivered to a group of nonplussed goatherds, who have just invited him and Sancho to a meal that includes sweet holm oak acorns, toasted in the embers of the fire – a culinary tradition that persisted in Spain until the late 20th century. It’s one of the rare moments in the book where Quixote seems at ease with his surroundings, and sanity shines through his madness.
Bacon, on the other hand, treats acorns as a substandard food, though there’s no evidence they are nutritionally less valuable than annual grains.6 Rather they symbolise what he seeks to do away with: a rustic, earthy, primitive way of life, doomed to disappear. His project of clearing away the ‘icons’ of tradition, custom and belief, to make room for the rational, the efficient and the scientific, has been applied with great enthusiasm over the intervening centuries; and eating acorns was among the first customs to be tainted with the stigma of backwardness, promoting its global decline almost to the point of oblivion.
Back in 2005, when my partner Almudena and I were planning a small food forest for our newly purchased plot of land in this tiny village in the green Cantabrian hills, I read up on a wide range of trees, shrubs and other perennial food plants. None of the sources I found talked about acorns, except for some special varieties of holm oak, Quercus ilex, which I couldn’t get hold of. So we planted plenty of walnuts, sweet chestnuts, hazels, even some pecans and monkey puzzle trees, but no oaks.
Fast forward a decade mostly spent raising children and mud houses, while also working for our bread and butter. We had precious little time to devote to our young woodland; luckily, trees, like kids, seem to thrive on benign neglect. After what seemed like a lifetime, we raised our heads, looked around, and to our surprise found ourselves living something approximating the good life we’d dreamt of when we got into this adventure in the first place, with a certain amount of free time to play around with things that weren’t a matter of immediate survival.
One of the most successful of these experiments was acorn bread. Our daughters, as fussy with their food as most teenagers, are both wild about it. Friends and visitors have also praised the rich nutty taste, though not many guess the secret ingredient.
Recently we embarked on an expansion of the Abrazo House food forest, including a hectare of holm oaks, which in a few years we plan to graft with sweet acorn varieties, obtained from a recently opened specialist nursery in Catalunya. Acorns seem to be making a comeback. It seems like a good omen for the project that, as I write, a 400-year-old holm oak in Colindres, seven kilometres from our land as the jay flies, has just been honoured as the Spanish ‘Tree of the Year’.
When I explain the process of preparing acorn meal, people often say that it seems like a lot of work. We’ve been conned into seeing work as a (perhaps) necessary evil, to be avoided whenever possible; but ‘work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.’7 The important question is not ‘how much work?’ but ‘what kind of work?’
In processing acorns, the only step that could be considered tedious is shelling, which you can do while watching a film, listening to music, or talking with friends. Also, the work is all out in the open, so to speak. How much labour, energy and damage are hidden in the kilo of flour we casually reach down off the shelf? How many fossil fuel subsidies, carbon emissions, agribusiness profits, farmer suicides, exploitation of migrant workers, soil erosion, genetic manipulation, artificial pesticides, fertilisers and food additives have been swept under the rug by the invisible hand of the market?
The oak tree makes acorns, quietly and without fuss, as a free gift, knowing the vast majority will end up eaten. The least I can do is to honour that gift with my own work, which I see as both a meditative practice and a gentle form of activism: the Buddhist idea of ‘right livelihood’ in a nutshell.
One way or another, if you aspire to make any kind of positive change in the world, you’ll need to give serious thought to right livelihood: how to feed, clothe and shelter yourself and your loved ones in ways that don’t contribute to the wrongs you hope to right. You won’t get far by biting the hand that feeds you; and unless activism is grounded in everyday reality, it’s prone to lose its way, either in a futile quest for ideological purity, leading to factionalism, or in fighting against individual parts of the whole – the heads of the Hydra – until it becomes defined by, and dependent on, the problems it started out trying to fix.
Every acorn shell I crack by hand is another crack in the armour of our warlike civilisation. Every handful of acorn meal I eat feeds the wildness within me. Direct action never tasted so good.
Yet during the seven years I’ve been making and sharing acorn bread, here in Cantabria and in the neighbouring Basque country, nobody’s ever called to mind their grandmother’s recipe, or mentioned how people used to make it in their village. Which is curious, if we consider that ‘until a few decades ago, many people in rural areas would habitually eat acorns: raw (if they were sweet or only slightly bitter), toasted, as soup or stew, roasted as ‘coffee’, or as bread mixed with maize flour (called talos, like Mexican tortillas) or with wheat flour (as bread)… using immersion in streams and rivers, heat, ashes, and other processes to remove the tannins… and drying as the most important method of preservation, which meant they could be kept for up to two years.’8
It turns out that the Spanish culture of eating acorns didn’t die a natural death: it had to be eradicated by force, along with other elements of rural self-sufficiency.
According to César Lema’s guide to Cooking with Acorns in the Post-petroleum Era, ‘It was Franco who introduced modernity to the countryside, with the whip, the cudgel and the bullet… In state schools, the teachers reprimanded and even punished those who ate acorns and other wild foods. Among adults, the idea was spread that this was a practice of fierce and bestial beings—yokels, hicks, bumpkins or louts—who needed to be ‘civilised’ through beatings by the Guardia Civil and sermons from the pulpit… The interests of the state required the elimination of self-sufficiency and habituating the population to eating only what was acquired via the market, and valuing only the products of agriculture… We have had great difficulty in gathering information about this topic, because acorns are a food which the Basques (and this statement can be extended to other regions) are still ashamed of admitting they have eaten.’9
An egalitarian, self-sufficient, non-monetary rural culture, which had existed since the early Middle Ages with the commons as its social safety net, was destroyed in a matter of two decades, leading to mass emigration to the cities, including that of my parents-in-law, who left their respective villages in Castille and León for Bilbao. The trauma inflicted by Franco’s regime was buried during the transition to democracy by a political and legal ‘pact of forgetting’ that is still largely in place.
But ignoring buried trauma won’t make it disappear: we will always be running away from it unless we turn and face it. We have to leach its bitterness from our lives if we are to taste their true flavour. As Lorca wrote: ‘We must remember towards tomorrow.’10
Here are my reinventions of two traditional acorn bread recipes, as eaten in villages all over the northern Iberian Peninsula up until the 1950s. In the maritime climate of the north coast, spelt (an ancient variety of wheat) was widely grown until the arrival of maize from the New World, and to this day still is in some areas. Both types of bread are delicious with either sweet or savoury dishes.
NB: Acorns and maize are, in principle, gluten-free, while spelt is considerably lower in gluten than modern wheat.
Acorn and Spelt Bread
6 cups leached acorn meal
6 cups spelt flour (or other bread flour)
1/2 tablespoon salt
Sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds
Mix the acorn meal, flour and salt in a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of lukewarm water and add this. Knead the dough well, adding water (or more flour) until it is a good consistency, not too stiff and not too sticky. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rise overnight. Knead again and shape into loaves, scoring the top of the loaf with a knife to prevent splitting and make it easier to slice later. Brush the top with water and sprinkle with seeds. Bake for 45 minutes at 200°C. Makes two large loaves.
Acorn and Maize Talos
2 cups leached acorn meal
2 cups hot water
2 cups maize flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Put the acorn meal, hot water and salt in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent sticking. Take off the heat and blend with an electric mixer to get rid of any lumps. Add the maize flour, mixing well until you have a stiff dough that is not too sticky. You may need to adjust the amount of flour. Leave to stand until cool. The dough can be kept overnight in the fridge.
Roll the cool dough into small balls between your palms, then either pat it into flat cakes by hand or, for thinner talos, roll it out between two sheets of plastic, or use a tortilla press. The talos can either be toasted in a hot pan with no (or a very little) oil, or baked in the oven for 15 minutes at 200°C. Serves four.
1 Most oaks are in fact planted not by humans but by jays, who are thus a keystone species in oakwoods. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953) is an inspiring ecological fable but a flawed tree-planting guide; the protagonist, Elzéard Bouffier, kept his acorns in a sack all winter, so they wouldn’t have germinated.
2 Russel Smith, J. Tree Crops: A permanent agriculture, 1929, p.150. Public domain, obtained from the Soil and Health Library.
3 Graves Robert The Greek Myths I, 1955, ch.1; Pausanias Description of Greece, 110 – 180 AD.
4 For more native California acorn lore, see Ocean, Suellen Acorns and Eat’em, 1993 https://is.gd/k40kGZ
5 Frankl, Viktor Man’s Search for Meaning, 1945. Frankl was a psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor.
6 Acorns contain 20% fat and 4.5% protein, compared with 2% & 9% for maize and 1% & 11% for wheat. J. Russell Smith, ibid., p.151.
7 Schumacher, E.F. ‘Buddhist Economics’, 1966
8 Lema Costas, César (2013) Manual de Cocina Bellotera para la Era Post Petrolera, pp. 7–8, 72–73. Translation mine. From https://is.gd/iRZ4F2
9 Ibid., p. 73.
10 García Lorca, Federico When Five Years Pass, 1931.